Searching for others’ blog posts about Persona 3 got me exposed to the different kinds of posts people write about games. And I was surprised about the extent to which my search clarified my feelings about what kinds of posts I like.

Generally, the posts fell into a few different categories; I could break them down in a few different ways, but one (not all-inclusive) taxonomy is:

  1. “I’ve just started playing this game, here are a few initial reactions.”
  2. Reviews.
  3. Focused approaches to some theme in the context of the game.

I cherished each example of the third variety that I came across: they invariably got me thinking about the game in a way that I hadn’t before, taught me something new about the game. Unfortunately, they were few and far between. Posts of the first variety, which were much more common, didn’t have a similar impact, but they did at least get me to smile: we’ve all been in that position many times where we’ve just started to play a game, we’re excited by it, and we need to tell somebody about it.

What I wasn’t expecting was my reaction to reviews (which were also quite common): I was generally annoyed by them! This is, I realize, completely unfair: for one thing, that’s what the delete key (or the back button) is for, and for another thing, I simply wasn’t the intended audience for reviews. I’d just finished playing the game, after all, while reviews are targeted at people who are thinking of purchasing the game. Having said that, the more reviews I read (or skimmed, to be honest), the more I wondered why reviews are so common in blogs, who their target audience is, and in what cases I would find them useful. Clearly a lot of people are putting in a fair amount of effort into crafting reviews; to what extent should I follow their lead?

My tentative conclusion to that last question: I should actively avoid writing reviews. I suspect that the reason why so many video game bloggers write them is that we’ve all been exposed to mainstream video game web sites, and reviews are all over the place on those sites. And they’re great there: most of the time, in fact, I think that’s the only useful purpose for mainstream game sites. Clearly other bloggers have spent as much time reading mainstream reviews as I do, because their reviews follow a similar pattern: they lead you through the game play, they talk about “traditional” criteria such as the quality of the graphics or the difficulty or the price, they discuss the plot enough to give you something of a feel for the game while studiously avoiding spoilers.

There are two problems with this approach, though. One is that it tends to give a flat feel to such posts: they follow a relatively narrow template, and, unless the author is rather careful, this means that such posts will feel like a checklist at times. The second problem is that there are a lot of other people out there, including many professional sites, who are following a similar template to you: this means that, by writing traditional review posts, you’re swimming in a red ocean. Concretely, it will probably be the case that anybody reading your review who is actually in the review audience will already have read at least one review for that game from a mainstream site; what are you giving such readers that they won’t have already gotten from that mainstream site?

In my experience, the answer is: not much. Which raises the question of what a poor video game blogger (your humble narrator, for example) is supposed to actually do? Posts of the first variety are pleasant but not particularly satisfying. Posts of the third variety are great, no question about it; I personally however rarely have the energy to write posts like that.

Fortunately, the above taxonomy isn’t inclusive: at the very least, there are hybrids of those three types. Going back to my earlier complaint about reviews: there are two reasons why they almost always feel flat. One is that the author feels compelled to write about certain things that are “supposed” to write about but doesn’t really feel strongly about, so those areas are lacking in energy. The other is that the author feels compelled to not delve in depth into whatever minor aspect happened to have particularly captured her fancy, because that would lead to an unbalanced-reading review.

If, however, we’ve decided that the traditional review structure isn’t, in of itself, a good thing to follow, the latter criticism loses all of its potency, as does the former compulsion. Which leads to the following recommendation, turning both of those points on their head:

  1. Write as much as you want about what speaks to you.
  2. Don’t write anything at all about what doesn’t speak to you.
  3. If the results look weird, if you can’t imagine anybody other than close personal friends being interested in what you are saying, you’re on the right track.

For one thing, you’re simply more likely to write well if you’re writing about something that interests you than if you’re not. You may worry that not many people are interested in what interests you; motivated writing will make up for that to a surprising extent, but even when it fails, consider whom you’re competing against in your search for readers. If you do traditional reviews, you have to compete with thousands of sites, many of which are written by people who have written a hundred times as many reviews as you have, and you’ll have to work extremely hard and be extremely lucky to do a better job than they do. Whereas if you follow your own nose, you’ll have a much smaller potential readership, but a single post that strikes a chord with people who didn’t even know they resonated like that can go a long way. (And, ironically, the more you stay away from a traditional review format, the more you’ll influence others to buy the games you’re passionate about: I know the reasons why I’m interested in, say, Yakuza 2 have nothing to do with reviews that I’ve read of the game and everything to do with little scenes from the game that people felt like they just had to talk about.)

Which looks like it’s leading us back to the third category in my taxonomy above, and if that’s where you end up, great: I’m sure the world needs the definitive post on Shadow of the Colossus furry porn, or whatever topic happens to float your boat. But if you, like me, don’t usually end up quite that focused, that’s fine too: there’s nothing wrong with a hybrid between the first two categories, with a discussion of a game that dives into a few aspects of the game that happened to interest you while studiously ignoring large (or small!) swaths of it.

Michael Abbott recently posted about spoilers, taking the point of view that we should get over our fear of them. When he wrote that, I was largely inclined to agree with him, but I didn’t really understand why: thinking about the issues in this post has clarified that for me. The best pro-spoiler argument (or anti-anti-spoiler argument, I’m not saying spoilers are actively good) isn’t that we should try to imitate discussions of works in other genres, or that we should take a comprehensive approach to games. It’s that we should write about what interests us, that we should write about topics that we have something to say about; the main thing that we would accomplish by putting spoilers off limits is to make our discussion artificially less rich, and why would we want to do that? (See also Michael’s post today about how spending too much time on “games as art” is similarly unproductive compared to personal interpretations of experiences with games.)

So: follow your nose, write about what you’re passionate about, don’t write about what you’re not passionate about, and we’ll all be richer for it.

Post Revisions: